For the Russian opposition, “the least worst option” was the key to voting in the Duma. Did it work?


Earlier this year Sergei Rimsky resigned from his police position in the city of Ivanovo, a depressed former industrial textile city of 400,000 inhabitants northeast of Moscow.

The reason? He was disgusted by the brutal police crackdown on protesters supporting anti-corruption crusader and Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny. He decided to channel his frustration and run for public office – as a candidate for the lower house of the national parliament, the State Duma.

Days before the September 17-19 vote, Rimsky’s campaign, on the Yabloko Liberal Party ticket, received a boost when he, along with dozens of candidates nationwide, was backed by the Navalny’s high-tech voter guide strategy, dubbed Smart Voting. The strategy was aimed at eroding the grip of the ruling party, United Russia, on domestic politics.

The result for Rimsky? A distant fourth place, the candidate of United Russia winning hands down.

Sergei Rimsky

Rimsky says he has no hard feelings against smart voting, but seems to work best in more hip, tech savvy, and politically active regions like Moscow and St. Petersburg – and less so in more rural, remote or lesser areas. developed like his.

“Smart voting mainly has an effect where there is good access to information resources, to people who are active Internet users, and where there is serious sympathy for a protest. [vote]”, he told RFE / RL. In the Ivanovo region, there is none of that.”

Full preliminary results released by the Central Election Commission on September 20 showed that United Russia, the political party hip to the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin, retained its qualified majority in the Duma and was expected to hold 324 of the 450 seats in the Duma. bedroom.

Before the vote, it was debated whether the party, chained with the worst approval ratings in its two decades of existence, should settle for a simple majority rather than the two-thirds majority needed to approve constitutional amendments without help from other parties.

Wishful thinking

It ended up being wishful thinking for a number of reasons – including widespread fraud which opposition activists say hampered voting which lacked credible international observers and an electronic voting system. opaque in several regions.

The suspense now seems to lie in the effectiveness and fate of Navalny’s Smart Voting initiative, which many Russian liberal and opposition figures had bet would be a tool to thwart United Russia.

Navalny, who sits in a hard prison about 200 kilometers southwest of Ivanovo on charges he claims to be politically motivated, praised the Smart Voting initiative and accused authorities of mitigating its impact by fraud.

“Technically, we see the huge success of smart voting. So in Moscow and St. Petersburg it’s usually a triumph, ”said one declaration posted on his Instagram account, which is managed by his associates.

“And now we are united, focused and, with the help of [Smart Voting], simply crushed the opponents in the game, “the statement read.” But they have the scoreboard. And they won each other again. “

So what about smart voting? How much of a factor was that?

“I have no doubt that ‘smart voting’ influenced the election results in a visible digital way this campaign, as it did during [the] St. Petersburg local elections and Russian subnational elections in 2020, “Mikhail Turchenko, political scientist at the European University of St. Petersburg, told RFE / RL.

But he warned that until more data became available, it was still too early to say for sure.

Navalny made a name for himself with a sharp wit, a relentless anti-corruption campaign and a prominent place in the 2011-12 protests that were sparked by anger at the Duma’s electoral fraud and dismay at the return from Putin to the presidency. He then tried his hand at electoral politics in 2013, running for mayor of Moscow.

He lost to the anointed Kremlin candidate, but he garnered enough votes to show that a true independent candidate could garner genuine support.

In 2018, after being barred from challenging Putin for the presidency, he and his allies devised smart voting – a way to focus political opposition and fight government action to keep many potential candidates away. opposition ballots.

The idea aims to identify and support those candidates who have the best chance of beating the candidates of United Russia – at the national and local levels.

More importantly, these candidates may belong to what is known as the “systemic opposition” – the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and others who are nominally in the opposition but who rarely vote against the initiatives of the Party. United Russia or the Kremlin.

For some liberal Russians who recoil from voting for Communists, or Nationalist Liberal Democrats, or any party blessed by the Kremlin, this is voting for the “less worst option.”

High water mark

So far, the peak of smart voting may have come in 2019, where the strategy was used in the elections to the Moscow City Duma, the city’s legislature.

In that race, 20 candidates who were supported by Navalny’s team won, a victory that reduced the number of United Russia members in the legislature from 45 seats to 25, from 38.

According to a research paper the strategy, on average, improved the results of opposition candidates by 5.6 percent.

During the regional and local election campaigns of September 2020, the effect of smart voting was greatest in regional capitals and other major cities, according to another research paper co-written by Turchenko. United Russia lost its majority in the legislatures of the Siberian cities of Novosibirsk, Tambov and Tomsk in this vote.

Part of the success, according to the paper, was attributable to the mobilization of opposition voters who had not voted before, either out of apathy or confusion with voting choices.

A woman examines Aleksei Navalny's Smart Voting app on her mobile phone in Moscow on September 17.

A woman examines Aleksei Navalny’s Smart Voting app on her mobile phone in Moscow on September 17.

All this before Smart Voting goes fully high-tech this year with a downloadable app and user-friendly interface that allows anyone, anywhere in Russia’s 11 time zones, to clock in their district. and quickly find an alternative to United Russia Candidates.

Half of the 450 deputies of the Duma are chosen from single-member constituencies where the candidate with the most votes wins, even if he is far from having a majority. The other half is chosen by a national vote for the party lists.

The Smart Voting endorsements, released by Navalny associates on September 15, included its 1,234 recommendations, for both national and regional votes in total. For the Duma, he recommended 137 candidates from the Communist Party, 48 candidates from the A Just Russia Party, 20 Liberal Democrats and 10 from the Liberal Yabloko Party. A handful of candidates from other parties were also recommended.

An unofficial RFE / RL tally, based on preliminary results, showed that 13 of those approved in single-member districts won their elections. In at least two races, a candidate supported by Smart Voting lost his race, as did the candidate from United Russia.

“Navalny’s team will likely claim success for ‘Smart Voting’ the candidates they chose who were victorious, but that is to be expected,” said Ben Noble, assistant professor of Russian politics at the University. College of London. “As social scientists, however, we should be more careful – and pay attention to the growing support for [the Communist Party] in recent months, which probably reflected a dynamic independent of the activities of Navalny and his associates. “

Questions about the effectiveness of smart voting are clouded not only by the Russian authorities’ campaign to sideline Navalny and his organization, but also by his efforts to prevent people from downloading the Smart Voting app – or even read the smart voting lists that were circulating online.

Tech giants Google and Apple, as well as the Telegram messaging app, bowed to Russian arguments that the Smart Voting app should be phased out due to the designation of Navalny and his organization as “extremists.” .

In the Rimsky district of Ivanovo, the electorate and the technical infrastructure made it difficult to implement smart voting.

Electronic voting

In Moscow, where it was likely to be most effective, it was further thwarted by electronic voting, which election officials widely advocated as an easy and safe way for people to vote amid the COVID pandemic. 19.

Opponents of the Kremlin have said online voting is a major means of fraud because it makes it harder for outside observers to access and analyze raw voting data to verify manipulation.

And when several races in Moscow abruptly swung in favor of United Russia when the results of the electronic vote were announced after long delays, enemies of the ruling party cried foul.

“It is… impossible to recognize the results of the vote in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was even dirtier and worse than in 2011,” Navalny senior official Leonid Volkov said in a Twitter post. “In St. Petersburg, the opposition’s victory was forcibly stolen. In Moscow, by electronic scam.”

A woman votes at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Moscow on September 19.

A woman votes at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Moscow on September 19.

The Communist Party promised that it would not recognize Moscow’s results, and called for a series of protests and an investigation.

Smart voting “worked as we described in the article… it gave a slight but tangible increase in votes that was completely visible in Moscow,” said Grigory Golosov, a political scientist who co-wrote the analysis of the 2020 vote with Turchenko. . “It may have happened in other areas as well, but it is too early to tell.”

“Smart voting can only give a candidate a little push, but in the context of free and fair elections, that little push can be decisive,” he told RFE / RL.

However, critics of the Kremlin claim that these elections were absolutely not free and fair, especially in Moscow.

Andrei Kolesnikov, political analyst and senior researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said smart voting offers an alternative and helps motivate apathetic voters.

But by supporting so many Communists, he argued in an opinion piece in the Financial Times, Navalny essentially staged a race between the Communists and the “Chekists” – a nickname often used to describe spies, agents. current and former Russian security and intelligence services. agents like Putin and many people he has appointed to senior positions.

“This does not change the irresponsible mood of the public, or the political vector,” he added. he wrote.


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